What drew you to make 9 Star Hotel? How did you find the story? And how did you find the characters?
I grew up in a village near the city of Modi'in, and my parents still live there. When I went to visit them, I saw groups of men running across the highway and disappearing into the forest and the hills. I started to wonder where these men were coming from and where they were going. I walked around those forests, the same ones I've known since I was a child, and discovered a kind of terminal full of thousands of Palestinian men and women who came from the West Bank to work in Israel.
I talked to some of the people in the forest, and someone told me about a place in the hills where people were, as he described it, living in these kind of graves. He took me there, and that's how everything started.
In the beginning, when I started trying to shoot the film, there was a lot of suspicion; the workers were sure that I was involved with the Israeli Army or the Israeli police. But after awhile, they understood that I'm interested in their story. Still, it took me months to find the two main characters in the film: Ahmed and Muhammad. There was something in their faces that caught me before I understood their stories. I felt as though the camera chose those two as my characters.
Have Ahmed and Muhammad seen the film? What was their reaction?
Ahmed and Muhammad saw it for the first time at the Jerusalem Film Festival. We snuck them into Israel, and it was their first time seeing themselves on the big screen. In an audience of all Israelis, they were both very nervous, but they were also very excited. After the film ended, many people came up to talk to them. I think seeing the film with an audience was a big experience for them. They had told me many times that they didn't understand why anyone would want to see a film about them, because they were just ordinary people. In the end I think they were very moved and very proud.
What surprised you during the making of the film?
One of the biggest surprises for me was finding this group of very vital and very — in a way — happy people living in the situation that they were living in. Of course, their lives were very hard, but the workers weren't bitter most of the time. You might expect them to be furious about Israel or about the situation, but that wasn't the case. I thought I would meet very depressed people, but instead I saw people with joy, and I really enjoyed sitting, talking and singing with them.
How have audiences — Israeli, Palestinian and international — reacted to the film?
At the Jerusalem Film Festival, Israeli audiences were shocked. They felt embarrassed and ashamed because in many ways this is a film about the people who build our houses, and, often, we choose not to see those people. This film forces us to look those people in the eyes, and that was very hard for audiences.
As for Palestinian audiences, there were teenagers who identified with the main characters, and there were women in the audience whose husbands and sons work in Israel. It was the first time the women could see how those husbands and sons lived and worked, and that was very hard for the women.
And in the United States, audiences often ask me about the situation at the U.S./Mexican border. Although I don't know much about that situation in particular, I think there are issues in 9 Star Hotel which are relevant to different places around the world. There are illegal workers everywhere.